ADVERTISEMENT

Wieffering: Fighting death's final indignity: The price tag

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING
  • Star Tribune
  • February 7, 2012 - 9:59 PM

Death may not be proud, but it sure can be expensive.

Verlin Stoll doesn't think it has to be, and that has earned the baby-faced 27-year-old funeral home operator the enmity of Minnesota's biggest funeral home trade group.

Why, things are getting so nasty that the executive director of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association recently labeled Stoll an "entrepreneurial dynamo."

It wasn't intended as a compliment.

Stoll owns Crescent Tide funeral home in St. Paul. You won't find any soaring atriums or faux Greek columns at Crescent Tide. The year-old business is in an office park in the Midway District of St. Paul on, fittingly enough, Transfer Road. On the morning I visited, an Amtrak passenger car was parked behind the building.

But the absence of stateliness or grandeur is intentional, and it's reflected in the prices Stoll posts on his website. A Crescent Tide funeral followed by burial or cremation costs about one-third the $5,000 or $6,000 charged by traditional, full-service funeral homes, not including the cost of a casket, flowers or other merchandise.

Stoll spent two years working for one of those full-service funeral homes. "I always felt kind of bad for charging people how much we did," he said.

Stoll's low-cost approach and low overhead -- he and his wife are the only employees -- helped Crescent Tide turn a profit within its first year. Now, he'd like to open another facility in St. Louis Park. To do so, he's leading a challenge to a Minnesota law that requires every funeral home to have a specially equipped embalming room.

Sounds logical enough, but here's the thing: Minnesota law does not require funeral directors to perform body preparation or embalming in those rooms. Most owners of multiple funeral homes transport bodies to a central location for those activities. Some even outsource their embalming services to licensed third-party firms -- also perfectly legal.

And then there's the fact that, in the Twin Cities, more than half of all bodies are cremated rather than buried. Funeral homes are not required to have a crematorium on their premises, and most don't. They transport the body to another facility for that service.

Stoll already has an embalming room in his St. Paul funeral home, which he estimates cost almost $30,000 to lease and furnish. Requiring him to build another one that he has no intention of using will either delay his expansion or force him to raise prices.

"In the end, it will mean higher prices for customers," Stoll said.

Stoll is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the Minnesota Department of Health, which licenses and regulates funeral homes in Minnesota. The lawsuit was brought by the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has made a name for itself going after laws that it says restrict "economic liberty."

Its track record is somewhat mixed, though in Minnesota it changed a state law that required hair-braiders to have a barber's or cosmetologist's license. It also successfully defended an effort to repeal a measure that lifted the limits on the number of taxicab licenses that could be awarded in the city of Minneapolis.

In Stoll's case, the Institute for Justice says that limiting competition is the "only plausible explanation" for the embalming room requirement.

The Department of Health, which has not responded to the lawsuit yet, declined an interview request.

The Minnesota Funeral Directors Association is not named in the lawsuit, and it is not opposed to the practice of embalming being performed at one central location. Nevertheless, Executive Director Gary Anderson sees the embalming room requirement as an important and necessary safeguard.

"A situation could arise where something might need to be done to a body to prevent a public health condition," Anderson said.

More broadly, Anderson sees the lawsuit as part of a broader trend that "tears away the regulatory structure we've put in place to protect consumers."

In 2010, for example, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed legislation that lifted a requirement that all bodies be embalmed before a public viewing, that bodies be transported in a hearse and that children not be allowed to view a body unless it had been embalmed. The law was pushed, in part, by the home hospice movement and advocates for home funerals.

Stoll said he wasn't involved in that effort, or one last year that allowed the sale of caskets by someone other than a funeral home operator. But he supports them anyway, even if it might mean less money in his pocket.

After all, competition is good for everyone, even those no longer living.

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

© 2014 Star Tribune